Whither the Never Trumper?
It’s been a difficult few months for the small but outspoken group of prominent Republican consultants, operatives and media figures who opposed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Since Trump’s inauguration, these party renegades have had to come to terms with the political ascension of a man hellbent on sabotaging a party and an agenda they’ve worked decades to promote.
Put simply: The Never Trumpers have been better. If you’re envisioning a bunch of people in business attire swaddling themselves in bed all day, you wouldn’t be far off.
“I’m emotionally unwell,” quipped Jeb Bush’s former communications director, Tim Miller, “but I’m doing my best.”
“I guess there’ve been some points that haven’t been as brutal as others,” said Meghan Milloy, a co-director of Republican Women for Hillary. “It kind of fluctuates day to day based on the news cycle.”
A lot of people and things aren’t faring well during the Trump presidency ― immigrants, women, Muslims, refugees, the LGBTQ community, European Union officials, workers, people with pre-existing conditions, Syrian civilians, arctic ice sheets, Sean Spicer, diplomatic protocol officers, endangered species, journalists and Seth Rich’s family, to name a few. In such an environment, one isn’t inclined to feel much sympathy for a group of GOPers estranged from their party establishment. Far worse fates can befall a person than not landing a West Wing office or being unable to nab GlaxoSmithKline as a lobbying client because that person isn’t tight with Jared Kushner.
But let’s spare a moment for the Never Trump Republican, if only because it’s a significant development when so many of the biggest detractors in the ruling party are disillusioned and in disagreement over whether there is anything to be done about their predicament.
The Never Trumpers interviewed for this piece were uniformly appalled by the fire hose-like stream of White House scandals inundating the news. But they’re more despairing over the president’s abandonment of key conservative principles, along with a sense that he has blown the opportunity to advance the principles he does support.
“It’s frustrating for me as a conservative,” said former Ted Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler. “We were told if we won the House and got our speaker in there that all of these wonderful things would happen and that wasn’t true.”
Those “wonderful things” include efforts to overhaul the tax code, repeal Obamacare and gut Wall Street regulations ― ambitions that the Trump administration’s myriad organizational shortcomings and the investigations into Russian connections have largely sidelined.
As if Trump’s own goals weren’t agonizing enough, Never Trumpers fret over the president’s ongoing rhetoric targeting longheld conservative principles. Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP consultant and pundit, took particular umbrage with the president’s proposed budget.
“You can’t pretend that proposing a giant, budget-busting, fantasy math budget like they proposed is fiscal conservatism,” Wilson said, adding that he wasn’t surprised that the president abandoned “most [fiscal] conservative principles and engaged in a narcissistic daily temper tantrum.”
“We’ve got a president who’s telling companies what they can and can’t do, where they can and can’t move, where their workers can and can’t go. [Conservatives] complain about the size of government all the time. To administer Trumpism, you’re going to have to wildly expand the role of government in the private sector,” he said.
The president’s embrace of Russia and confrontational attitude toward NATO hasn’t exactly earned himself plaudits from this crowd, either.
“In foreign policy, he’s moving in exactly the opposite direction as Ronald Reagan did,” said Liz Mair, a Republican communications consultant who has previously worked with would-be Republican presidential candidates Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry.
Things could’ve been different, of course. Many of these Never Trumpers were once well-positioned for White House jobs, having worked for lawmakers who went on to run in 2016, or taking part in 2016 Republican primary campaigns directly. That a bunch of people they see as utterly incompetent are now occupying these dream gigs only compounds the hurt.
“The problem with this team on all levels is they haven’t done the work of putting out a communications plan to inform the country of what it is they’re trying to do,” said Tyler. “They don’t have plan. It’s just a continuous campaign.”
“I can’t imagine if I were somebody who was supposed to be working on something important like policy or presenting the president’s image,” echoed Mair. “Working in communications, a lot of complaints I hear are, ‘Oh my God, their communications operations!’ and I’m like, ‘What the fuck did you people expect?’”
Working in communications, a lot of complaints I hear are, 'Oh my God, their communications operations!' and I'm like, 'What the fuck did you people expect?' Liz Mair, Republican communications consultant
Some members of the Never Trump movement are trying to combat the trends that led to this despair. After the November election, Meghan Milloy and her Republican Women for Hillary co-founder Jennifer Pierotti Lim rechristened the organization Republican Women for Progress. The group, according to its co-founders, seeks to restore the socially progressive, economically conservative brand of Republican once personified by Nelson Rockefeller by recruiting, training and promoting female Republican candidates.
“One big problem is that there aren’t many women in leadership,” said Milloy, “and I think that’s due in large part to the fact that the GOP doesn’t have the support organizations and actions in place like EMILY’s List that specifically cater to women.”
Pierotti Lim said female lawmakers in Congress have proven more willing to “chart their own course” and not walk in lockstep with the president, citing Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), among others. Republican Women for Progress aims to cultivate that approach.
“I think a few Republican women have been able to walk the line of not being 100 percent supportive of the Trump administration,” Pierotti Lim said.
But Milloy and Pierotti Lim’s relative optimism is in short supply. Few Never Trumpers believe there is much hope for a near-term correction of the political and demographic trends that contributed to Trump’s rapid takeover of the GOP.
“From an ideological standpoint, the center of gravity is moving toward the populist right,” said Miller. “I don’t see us swinging back.”
A number of Never Trumpers told HuffPost that Trump’s election prompted a sobering realization: that the largely academic brand of conservatism they support ― actively small-government and interventionist ― doesn’t sync with the beliefs and outlooks of many Republican voters.
“American conservatism has become anti-liberalism,” said veteran conservative commentator Charlie Sykes. “It is united by hating the media and hating the left ― as opposed to supporting small government.”
White House officials dismissed the criticism as textbook wound-licking from people whose side lost.
“The President is holding his promises to the American people by growing the economy, creating jobs, protecting our boarders [sic] and ensuring that every American is safe and prospering,” a White House spokesman said in a curiously spelled statement provided to HuffPost.
Republican officials in Congress also expressed frustration with the criticism, citing a need to deal with the inescapable reality of Trump’s presidency and his support among an overwhelming majority of Republicans.
“We certainly appreciate their advice on Twitter,” quipped one senior GOP aide.
It's suicidal, it's self-destructive, it's a time bomb waiting to go off that will ruin their careers and political legacies Rick Wilson, GOP consultant and pundit
Never Trumpers aren’t unsympathetic to the political bind in which Trump has placed his congressional colleagues.
“I think they’re in a tough spot,” said Miller, who cited polling showing Republican support for the president in the high 80s. “The base of the Republican Party and the people that these Congress folk respond to ― the small-dollar donors, the people who knock on doors, the people who are engaged in the political process ― they overwhelmingly want them to support Trump and his agenda.”
However many more Never Trumpers were exasperated by the relative absence of elected Republicans standing up to Trump.
“I have maintained my entire political career that the Republican Party is one of the most gutless collections of individuals on the planet,” said Mair. “They are some of the most spineless individuals on the planet.”
Others warned that the party will suffer political consequences for inaction.
“I remain absolutely convinced that [Trump] remains unfit for office, but that does not mean that I think anyone will take steps to do anything,” said Sykes, adding that anyone who assumes otherwise “fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the current Republican Party.”
“This is a party that rolled over and nominated Donald Trump despite all their doubts,” he continued. “With every passing day it becomes the defining characteristic of this party that they won’t stand up to Donald Trump and that many of them on a daily basis find ways to pretzel themselves into rationalizing his conduct.”
Rick Wilson was no less blunt in his assessment.
“It’s suicidal, it’s self-destructive, it’s a time bomb waiting to go off that will ruin their careers and political legacies,” he predicted. “Every one of them who comes out and talks about how they’re small-budget conservatives and want to balance budgets should be struck by lightning.”
But, hey, it’s not all bad ― or at least as bad as they thought. Most praised a number of Trump’s Cabinet picks, in particular Secretary of Defense James Mattis and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
“There are a few areas where he’s proving to be not 100 percent horrible,” said Mair. “Everybody’s got to find some bright spots in their day.”
Wilson was more Zen about the situation.
“When you expect the worst,” he said, “you get precisely what you expected.”